Cat People (1942 film)

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Cat People
Cat People poster.png
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJacques Tourneur
Produced byVal Lewton
Written byDeWitt Bodeen
StarringSimone Simon
Kent Smith
Tom Conway
Jane Randolph
Music byRoy Webb
CinematographyNicholas Musuraca
Edited byMark Robson
Distributed byRKO Radio Pictures Inc.
Release date
  • December 6, 1942 (1942-12-06)
Running time
73 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$8,000,000[1]

Cat People is a 1942 horror film produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur. DeWitt Bodeen wrote the original screenplay, which was based on Val Lewton's short story The Bagheeta, published in 1930.[3] The film stars Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph and Tom Conway. In 1993, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[4]

Cat People tells the story of a young Serbian woman, Irena, who believes herself to be a descendant of a race of people who turn into cats when sexually aroused or deeply angered.

Plot summary[edit]

Jane Randolph in the trailer for Cat People

At the Central Park Zoo in New York City, Serbian-born fashion designer Irena Dubrovna makes sketches of a black panther. She catches the attention of marine engineer Oliver Reed, who strikes up a conversation. Irena invites him to her apartment for tea. As they walk away, one of Irena's discarded sketches is revealed to be that of a panther impaled by a sword.

At her apartment, Oliver is intrigued by a statue of a medieval warrior on horseback impaling a large cat with his sword. Irena informs Oliver that the figure is King John of Serbia and that the cat represents evil. According to legend, long ago the Christian residents of her home village gradually turned to witchcraft and devil worship after being enslaved by the Mameluks. When King John drove the Mameluks out and saw what the villagers had become, he had them killed. However, "the wisest and the most wicked" escaped into the mountains. Oliver is openly dismissive of the legend even though Irena clearly takes it seriously.

Oliver buys her a kitten, but upon meeting her it hisses. "Cats just don't like me," Irena explains and she suggests they go to the pet shop to exchange it. When they enter the shop the animals go wild in her presence. The shopkeeper says that animals can sense things about people. It gradually becomes clear that Irena believes she is descended from the cat people of her village, and that she fears that she will transform into a panther if aroused to passion.

Despite Irena's odd beliefs, Oliver persuades her to marry him. However, during the dinner after their wedding at a Serbian restaurant, a catlike woman walks over and addresses Irena as "моја сестрa" (moya sestra, "my sister"). Irena never sleeps with her husband, fearful of the consequences. He is patient with her, when she says she felt compelled to throw her accidentally-killed canary into the panther's cage, he persuades her to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd. Judd tries to convince her that her fears are of a mundane nature, and stem from her childhood traumas. Irena is unhappy to discover that Oliver has confided in his assistant, Alice Moore.

Alice confesses to Oliver that she loves him. When Irena chances to see Oliver and Alice seated together at a restaurant, she follows Alice as she walks home alone. Just as Alice hears a menacing sound, a bus pulls up and she boards it. Soon after, a groundskeeper discovers several freshly killed sheep. The pawprints leading away turn into imprints of a woman's shoes. Irena returns to her apartment looking dishevelled and exhausted; she is shown shortly afterwards weeping in the bathtub. Irena dreams of Dr. Judd dressed up as King John speaking of "the key". Later, she steals the key to the panther's cage.

Irena, Oliver and Alice visit a museum, and Irena is angered when the former two shut her out. That evening, when Alice decides to use the basement swimming pool of her apartment building, she is stalked by an animal. She jumps into the pool. When Alice screams for help, Irena turns on the lights and says she is looking for Oliver. A little later, Alice finds her bathrobe torn to shreds.

After a talk with Dr. Judd, Irena tells Oliver she is no longer afraid, but Oliver tells her it is too late: he has realized that he loves Alice and intends to divorce Irena, who misses a meeting arranged between her, Oliver, Alice and Dr. Judd. Later at work Oliver and Alice are cornered by a snarling animal. Oliver and Alice manage to get out of the building but not before smelling Irena's perfume.

Alice calls Judd to warn him to stay away from Irena, but he hangs up when Irena arrives for her appointment with him. He kisses Irena passionately. He is frightened by what happens next and dies in a struggle. When Oliver and Alice arrive, Irena slips away and goes to the zoo. There, she opens the panther's cage with the stolen key and is struck down by the escaping panther, which is accidentally run down and killed by a car. Oliver and Alice find the panther lying on the ground. Oliver says, "She never lied to us."



Cat People was the first production for producer Val Lewton, who was a journalist, novelist and poet turned story editor for David O. Selznick. RKO hired Lewton to make horror films on a budget of under $150,000 to titles provided by the studio.[5]

The film was shot from July 28 to August 21, 1942, at RKO's Gower Gulch studios in Hollywood.[6] Sets left over from previous, higher-budgeted RKO productions—notably the staircase from The Magnificent Ambersons—were utilized.[7] Costing $141,659 ($7,000 under budget),[8] it brought in almost $4 million in its first two years and saved the studio from financial disaster.[9]

Near the end of the filming of Cat People, two crews were working to finish the picture on time, one at night, filming the animals, and one during the day with the cast.[5]

Cat People was the first collaboration of director Tourneur with cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. Their later collaboration on RKO's Out of the Past (1947) would again be regarded as seminal for its genre,[10][11] in this case the film noir.

Lewton bus[edit]

Lewton and his production are credited for inventing or popularising the horror film technique called the 'Lewton Bus'. The term derives from the scene in which Irena is following Alice. The audience expects Irena to turn into a panther at any moment and attack. At the most tense point, when the camera focuses on Alice's confused and terrified face, the silence is shattered by what sounds like a hissing panther—but is just a bus pulling up. This technique has been used many times since. Any scene in which tension is dissipated by a mere moment of startlement, a boo!, is a 'Lewton bus'.[12]

Use of shadows[edit]

Much has been said of Lewton and Tourneur's use of shadows in lieu of an actual monster in the film. This is very much in contrast to competing horror films being produced by Universal at the time. J. P. Tollette in his book Dreams of Darkness: Fantasy and the Films of Val Lewton speaks to the meaning of the extensive use of shadows in the film:

"While engaging our imaginative participation, the absence marked by those dark patches speaks of a fundamental – and disturbing – relationship between man and his world: it signals a black hole or vacant meaning in the physical realm which, in spite of man's natural desire to fill it with consciousness and significance, persistently and troublingly remains open."[13]


Cat People was released in 1942.[14] It was reissued theatrically in 1952 by RKO.[14]

Box office[edit]

The picture's box office receipts are disputed. Film historian Edmund Bansak has estimated the box office for Cat People at $4 million domestically and $4 million in foreign markets, almost 60 times its estimated budget of $134,000.[15] Film historians Chris Fugiwara and Joel Siegel also put the domestic box office at $4 million.[16] Variety estimated its rentals in 1943 as $1.2 million.[17]

But film historian Richard Jewell specifically dismisses the claims by Bansak, Fugiwara, and Siegel, saying the film had a domestic gross of $535,000 and a domestic profit of $183,000.[16]

Critical response[edit]

The film currently holds a 91% rating on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.[18]


Initial reviews for Cat People were mixed.[14] Monthly Film Bulletin stated that Cat People was "A fantastic story, reasonably produced and directed".[19] Variety stated that the film is "well-made on a moderate budget outlay" and relies upon "developments of surprises confined to psychology and mental reaction, rather than transformation to grotesque and marauding characters for visual impact on the audiences".[20] Variety said the script would be "hazy for the average audience in several instances, [but] carries sufficient punch in the melodramatic sequences to hold it together in good style", and said Tourneur "does a fine job with a most difficult assignment".[20] The Monthly Film Bulletin complemented the photography and acting, saying that Simone Simon "only partly succeeds in interpreting the part of Irena, but lighting and camera work and sound recording help to make her performance adequate".[19] Bosley Crowther (The New York Times) described the film as a "labored and obvious attempt to induce shock" and said that its themes are explored "at tedious and graphically unproductive length". Crowther commented on Simon's acting, stating that actresses who are trying to portray "[feline] temptations – in straight horror pictures, at least – should exercise their digits a bit more freely than does Simone Simon".[21] A reviewer at BoxOffice found the film "grim and unrelenting... a dose of horror best suited to addicts past the curable stage" and noted that the film was "definitely not for children, young or old ... Potent stuff, straight from the psychopathic clinic".[14]


Cat People is now acknowledged as a landmark in the horror genre. William K. Everson dedicates a whole chapter to the film and its successor The Curse of the Cat People in his book Classics of the Horror Film.[22] Paul Taylor in Time Out magazine remarked Lewton's "principle of horrors imagined rather than seen", its "chilling set pieces directed to perfection by Tourneur" and Simon's "superbly judged performance".[23] TV Guide's review of the film praised the film's cast:

Superbly acted (with Simon evoking both pity and chills), Cat People testifies to the power of suggestion and the priority of imagination over budget in the creation of great cinema. The film was Lewton's biggest hit, its viewers lured in by such bombastic advertising as "Kiss me and I'll claw you to death!" – a line more lurid than anything that ever appeared onscreen.[24]

Bravo awarded the film's stalk scene the 97th spot on their "The 100 Scariest Movie Moments", while Channel 4 awarded the scene the 94th spot on their "The 100 Greatest Scary Moments" list.[25]

In 1993, Cat People was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[4] Also, the New York Museum of Modern Art holds a copy of the film in its collection.[26] Critic Roger Ebert has included it in his list of "Great Movies".[27]

Not every critic praises the film, however: Richard Combs (Monthly Film Bulletin) compared the film unfavorably to other Lewton productions, stating that "it is perhaps easier to prefer the more mellow, less heavily fingered fantasy of Curse of the Cat People, and even the reconciled ambitions of The Ghost Ship".[28]


Lewton accepted the assignment of producing a follow-up film called The Curse of the Cat People, which was also written by DeWitt Bodeen and released in 1944. This follow-up film retained Kent Smith and Jane Randolph's characters, and showed Simone Simon either as a ghost or else as the imaginary friend of the couple's young daughter.

Related film[edit]

Another Lewton/Bodeen film, The Seventh Victim, was produced in 1943, and features Tom Conway as New York City psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd. In The Seventh Victim, Judd recounts to a poet that he once knew a mysterious woman who was in fact a "raving lunatic" (thought to be a reference to Irena Dubrovna), even though Judd's character died in Cat People, making the relationship between the two fictional narratives incoherent.[29] In memos and early drafts of the script, Conway's character was referred to as "Mr. Siegfried"; film scholars believe that the character's name was changed to create continuity between the two films in order to capitalize on Cat People's success.[30]


A remake of the first film directed by Paul Schrader and starring Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard and Annette O'Toole was released in 1982.

In March 1999, a second remake of the film was announced as a co-production between Universal Pictures and Overbrook Entertainment. The proposed remake, to be written by Rafael Moreu, would be updated to the present day and set in New York.[31]

DVD releases[edit]

In the US, Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People were issued as a double feature DVD or as part of the Val Lewton Horror Collection DVD box. In 2016, Cat People was reissued on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection. Foreign DVD editions have been released in France (as La Féline), Spain (as La mujer pantera) and Germany (as Katzenmenschen), while in the UK the film has been licensed and released on DVD by Odeon Entertainment (OEG).



  1. ^ a b Box Office Information for Cat People. The Numbers. Retrieved March 4, 2013.
  2. ^ Stephen Jacobs, Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster, Tomohawk Press 2011 p 297
  3. ^ IMDB FAQ
  4. ^ a b "Films Selected to The National Film Registry, Library of Congress 1989-2007". Library of Congress. Retrieved May 5, 2011.
  5. ^ a b TCM Notes
  6. ^ IMDB Filming locations
  7. ^ Kent Jones. Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows documentary film, 2008. Broadcast on Turner Classic Movies on January 14, 2008.
  8. ^ Vieira, Mark A. (2003). Hollywood Horror: From Gothic to Cosmic. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. p. 122. ISBN 0-8109-4535-5.
  9. ^ Fujiwara, Chris. Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8018-6561-1
  10. ^ Alain Silver, Elizabeth Ward Film Noir, New York: The Overlook Press, 1979
  11. ^ James Naremore More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts, Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998
  12. ^ White, p. 562
  13. ^ Tollette, p. 22
  14. ^ a b c d Pitts 2015, p. 58.
  15. ^ Loftis, Larry (2016). Into the Lion's Mouth: The True Story of Dusko Popov: World War II Spy, Patriot, and the Real-Life Inspiration for James Bond. New York: Berkley Caliber. p. 319 fn. 147. ISBN 9780425281819.
  16. ^ a b Jewell, Richard (2016). Slow Fade to Black: The Decline of RKO Radio Pictures. Oakland, Calif.: University of California Press. pp. 19–20. ISBN 9780520289666.
  17. ^ "Top Grossers of the Season". Variety. January 5, 1944. p. 54. Retrieved July 8, 2016.
  18. ^ Rotten Tomatoes "Cat People (1942)"
  19. ^ a b "Cat People". Monthly Film Bulletin. Vol. 10 no. 109. British Film Institute. 1943. p. 27.
  20. ^ a b ""Cat People"". Variety. Retrieved July 29, 2016.
  21. ^ Crowther, Bosley (December 7, 1942). "' Cat People,' With Simone Simon and Jack Holt, at Rialto -- New Swedish Film at 48th Street; Purrrr". The New York Times. Retrieved July 29, 2016.
  22. ^ William K. Everson. Classics of the Horror Film. The Citadel Press, 1974.
  23. ^ Review of Cat People in the 1999 edition of Time Out Film Guide. London: Penguin Books, 1998.
  24. ^ "Cat People (1942)" TV Guide
  25. ^ "The 100 Scariest Movie Moments". Archived from the original on October 30, 2007. Retrieved July 18, 2012.
  26. ^ Cat People in Museum of Modern Art collection.
  27. ^ Roger Ebert, "Cat People (1942)" Chicago Sun-Times March 12, 2006
  28. ^ Combs, Richard (1981). "Cat People". Monthly Film Bulletin. Vol. 48 no. 564. British Film Institute. p. 144.
  29. ^ Christopher, Nicholas (2010). Somewhere in the Night. Simon and Schuster. pp. 216–218.
  30. ^ Snelson, Tim (2014). Phantom Ladies: Hollywood Horror and the Home Front.'. Rutgers University Press. p. 179.
  31. ^ Petrikin, Chris (March 29, 1999). "'Cat' scratch again". Retrieved June 20, 2016.


  • Pitts, Michael R. (2015). RKO Radio Pictures Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Films, 1929–1956. McFarland. ISBN 1476616833.
  • White, Rob; Buscombe, Edward (2003). British Film Institute film classics, Volume 1. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 1-57958-328-8.
  • Tollette, J. P. (1985). Dreams of Darkness: Fantasy and the Films of Val Lewton. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-01154-6.
  • Christopher, Nicholas (2010). Somewhere in the Night. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1-4391-3761-1.
  • Snelson, Tim (2014). Phantom Ladies: Hollywood Horror and the Home Front. Rutgers University Press. ISBN 978-0-8135-7042-6.

External links[edit]